Photo courtesy of Omar Samra
He started by being the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest, then the first to climb the highest point on each continent, known as the seven summits challenge, and finally skiing the geographic North and South Poles. But the 38-year-old is far from done with his adventures and firsts: Adventurer, mountaineer and entrepreneur Omar Samra and friend triathlete Omar Nour have decided to row across the Atlantic Ocean.
The challenge, which is quite different from his previous adventures that mostly involved snow and climbing, has been on Samra’s mind for over three years. After a lot of research, watching documentaries and talking to people who have done it before, Samra and Nour last summer took the decision to row, unsupported, 5,000 nautical kilometers from the Canary Islands to Antigua, departing from the Canary Islands this coming December. In this exclusive interview, Samra talks about the challenge and how he is mentally preparing to spend a minimum of 40 days rowing in a two-by-seven meter boat with only Nour for company.
All your previous challenges involved hiking or trailing across ice and snow, this is the first adventure that involves water and rowing, why did you choose this challenge in particular?
I am a climber but I am also an adventurer. I am open to trying new adventures in different environments. For me that’s more challenging because it involves learning new skills and developing myself in new fields. Even though I have not done much rowing, I am attempting something very difficult and challenging within the rowing world so, from a personal perspective, I believe this is something very exciting and will help me learn a lot of new skills.
From an external perspective, I believe it is something more inspiring for people, I have been a climber for many years now, when I climb a new mountain, okay, it is interesting but Omar is already a climber; but if I can demonstrate that I am taking on a challenge in something completely outside of my scope, it is basically proof that anyone can achieve whatever they set their mind to. The trip usually takes 31 days for four-man teams, but for two men, it is usually between 41 and 109; who knows, we could break the record and do it in 40 days.
Why did you choose Omar Nour?
We met in 2013 and got along very well. We both complement each other really well in terms of how we work and in terms of character. We get along very well personally, which, I believe, is the most important aspect of the trip because you are spending two months or so with someone in a place and you cannot just say, “I’ll go take a walk and come back.” This is not something likely. The boat is two-by-seven meters: You cannot escape from the person you are with, this is why it is very important to choose wisely.
Nour lives in Dubai but he was in Cairo last week, I was in Dubai the month before; we make sure we are on the same track. We are close to getting our first sponsor which will allow us to buy the boat and then ship to Dubai. Nour and I are planning on rowing for 1,000 miles before the start of the challenge in December. We are also planning on going on a number of small trips and spending days at sea to live the experience and make sure how to deal with any unexpected setbacks.
How are you preparing mentally for the isolation?
I believe nothing can prepare you mentally for actually doing something, all the experiences that I have had before in both my personal life and in adventures and all the mental strength that has developed through these experiences is what is going to count. I know very well, having done it before, that you will prepare as much as you can, but the expedition itself will always be much harder than anything you have prepared before.
How different is training for rowing?
This is different for both of us, myself and Omar as he is a professional triathlete, which involves running, cycling and swimming. Both climbing and triathlon are more related to physical fitness but rowing, on the other hand, has to do with power and muscle endurance and little to do with the body’s cardiovascular system; the movement of the body during rowing is very slow and the heart rate is not high.
The challenge is that we are almost changing our bodies’ physiology, from endurance athletes to strength athletes, which is a totally different process.
When did you start? And how many hours are you training?
We started the actual physical training in March but the planning started last September, including research on the type of food we should eat and the courses we should take as well as preparing the proposal of our trip and writing it, which also involved meeting people because at the end of the day we need sponsors to cover it.
I usually do a strength training five days a week, two days of yoga and two days of physiotherapy. Eventually, it will involve one or two days of rowing, and strength training will increase from five days to 10 times per week two months before the trip.
What equipment are you taking?
The boat is obviously the most important thing. It has a cabin for one person, but in case of a storm, we can both go inside and close the hatch. We cannot row during a storm so we use a parachute anchor that helps slow the boat down. It also has water desalination equipment because we will be drinking and cooking from ocean water, solid panels for electrical equipment and GPS navigation equipment. It is a very sophisticated boat, it also has an inflatable raft, radio communication and VHF and satellite in case we have any trouble. However, if we call for any kind of help, we are disqualified from the race. We also have food for 90 days, and nowadays we are talking to nutritionists about the best food to eat on the trip that is light and does not need a lot of space to store and at the same time gives us the energy we need.
A couple of months before the trip, we will talk to experts about sleep because it is one of the hardest challenges in the trip. We will need to divide our rowing and sleeping schedule. We will be sleeping for two hours and rowing for two hours consecutively until we finish the race, so we will never sleep six hours straight. Other challenges include going under water every two days to clean algae off the boat, and we will be in the middle of the ocean with all the creatures down there. Another thing that is very common and that most rowers experience is getting blisters and stores because of the friction which we will have to just bear.
How have you raised funds?
The boat costs around $70,000 to $80,000. We have two options, either buying a used boat which has won a race and crossed the ocean before, which is a plus, but the problem is we will have to pay cash, so it depends on the sponsor. The other option is that I can build my own boat that if I order now will be delivered by August. I can buy it in installments and get sponsors to pay the rest, but we need the boat as soon as possible to start training.
Did you find it easy getting sponsors?
We are very close to getting one, I would imagine if everything goes well, we will have a sponsor by this month. It is hopefully a significant sponsorship, it will not be covering all the expenses we need, but it allows us to buy the boat, which is the most critical; we need to buy the boat as soon as possible.
Will you broadcast the experience live?
Not exactly a live broadcast but we will have satellite communication which will allow us to send photos, videos and audios. We will have our team on the ground who will be in charge of posting our day-to-day experience on social media. We are currently discussing making a documentary of the trip, but it is still not guaranteed or confirmed yet.
How has fatherhood changed the way you look at these challenges and how does your daughter feel about you rowing across the Atlantic?
I involve her very much in everything I do. She will be 4 years old soon but she already understands that I am crossing an ocean and what the Atlantic Ocean is and that I will be rowing from here to here. She knows that I am planning to go to space and that I climbed many mountains and went to Antarctica; she understands all that.
Basically, one of the hardest things in the expedition is that I am going to be away from her for two months, but at the same time it is very important to live my life as well. For me, this is a calling, the way I am wired, the way I am built is I am attracted to these challenges and it is how I feel alive and how I become a better person. I learn new things, all this adds to me as a person and it makes me really appreciate the time I spend with her. Yes, I am going to be away from her for two months, but in the grand scheme of things, in 10 or 20 years, it is not really going to matter. This will be the longest time I have ever been away from her, and she is mentally growing so fast, by the time of the race she will be more aware of it. I am hoping some family members will travel to Antigua and meet me there after the end of the race, and hopefully she will be there waiting for me on the other side.